Could The Riverina be THE New Offbeat Wine Region to Visit in Australia?
When I registered for last year’s Wine Media Conference to be held in Australia’s Hunter Valley, I had the opportunity to sign up for one of several regionally-sponsored media excursions. Among the choices were the charming and foodie-friendly Orange and Mudgee regions and, for a very limited group, Griffith, in Riverina, New South Wales, which, like California’s Central Valley, is known as a bulk wine-producing area and, famously, as the headquarters of Casella – otherwise known as the instigators of the Australian critter label, Yellowtail (spoiler it is actually a Wallaby, not a Roo) – whose success launched a tidal wave of moaning about how the critter wines had ruined Australian’s premium wines reputation. I, to the surprise of many of my wine friends, chose Griffith.
Why? Well, with due respect to Mudgee and Orange who were incredible hosts to my fellow WMC attendees , given my limited time and ability to travel far and wide, I wanted to get to something that was at the core of the Australian wine industry and, as a wine educator, wanted to see/understand the operations of a brand that, quite literally, shook the wine world, touching many more consumers (by orders of magnitude) than all of the wineries that I have visited on my five Wine Media Conference tours put together.
Also, I remembered the Wine Media Conference in Lodi in 2016, which has also labored under a ‘bulk wine’ reputation and where I found an amazing wine culture, fantastic wines, passionate winemakers and fell in love with the unpretentiousness of its small town, family farming legacy and agricultural feel. I had hopes of discovering some small producers in Griffith as well. As it turned out, Griffith reminded me profoundly of Lodi and, while the focus of the trip was on the big producers, I did meet some exciting smaller producers, including one who just last month was awarded the prestigious James Halliday Dark Horse Winery of the Year Award for 2021.
Now, no one, not even the wine commission in Riverina, is under any illusion that Griffith, charming as it is, will turn into a Mudgee-like wine destination. It is about a six hour drive from Sydney, a bit in the middle of nowhere, and not really a convenient stop on the way to anywhere (although it is a shortish flight from Sydney). But, in many ways, that is what made this trip so exciting for me.
So, before I discuss the wallaby in the room, which I will leave for last, I would like to share some tales of chicken salt and orange encrusted statues, a banquet of botrytized wines, the emergence of Durif as a flagship grape, and the, mostly Italian, immigrants who gave birth to a wine region that is the second largest wine producing region in Australia, home to six of Australia’s top 20 largest wine companies, shipping 12 ½ million cases of wine to 50 countries a year. It is BIG. But…. let’s start with the small! Riverina Reconsidered: Part One – Small Producers Finding the Sunlight in the Shadow of Giants